The moment of realization came about the time my clay-caked sandals, without warning and still attached to my feet, were no longer underneath me but instead splayed to the side in fantastically comic fashion. It came just after my left knee collided with the only rock within two meters each direction and I saw my own blood dot the Vietnamese mountainside, hours after the rain started and at least 15 kilometers into our trek. It hit me hard that this was the way I had chosen to spend one of my precious weekends away from the classroom, trudging in a pouring rain that Forrest Gump so aptly described as coming from both above and below. I had paid real money, in scarce supply at the time, to be here and really had no way out but up and over the mountain.
Soaked to the bone we inched through the mountain until, again without warning, the rain abated and the clouds parted and we realized we’d been hiking through the entrance to Heaven the entire time. This was what we had chosen to do with our precious time away, and when the valley fell before our feet we knew right then and there that there was nowhere else we’d rather be. The blood rolling down my leg had been hard earned, given to the mountain willingly, in reverence to the views I’ve never seen anywhere else, nor am I likely to see their equal again.
By the time I stepped onto the overnight bus from Hanoi to Sa Pa late on that Friday night, I had been working as a teacher for a month. My entire life I had resisted the idea of joining the family profession, of putting my big boy pants on every single morning and standing at the front of the classroom with a smiling face and an actual lesson plan. Up until this August, I had done quite well pretending to be an adult but still moving through the world with very few responsibilities. It was one of the things that had drawn me to journalism — weird hours, occasional liquid lunches and pretend adulthood.
But sure enough, the email “teach and travel in Vietnam” burrowed its way into my head and I could no longer say “no” to my apparent birthright. And oddly enough, I have absolutely loved teaching. I love the look on the kids’ faces when I first walk into the classroom and when they properly use something I’ve just taught them with pride smeared across a gigantic smile.
We all work pretty long hours, though, and a getaway was absolutely necessary. Many of our comrades on the same teaching internship headed to Halong Bay to spend a weekend relaxing on a boat. Others went to nearby destinations or simply stayed in Hanoi, presumably sleeping twice the amount a workweek allows. For my five travel companions and me, the decision was simple — we would head North with just our beds booked for Saturday night and figure out the rest on the fly. It would be part of the adventure and we would roll with the punches. It couldn’t have worked out any better.
Sa Pa Valley is about six hours from Hanoi by bus, tucked high up in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains in northwest Vietnam, near the Chinese border. This region is home to Vietnam’s highest peak, Fan Si Pan, and many ethnic tribes who, isolated for hundreds of years, don’t speak Vietnamese but their own tribal languages. They also speak surprisingly good English; with their mountain isolation ending in the mid-1990s when the neon sign industry and thousands of tourists began arriving on their front doorsteps in droves. The mountains have been clearly claimed by these tribes, who have carved terraces onto each available plot of land meant for the farming of rice. Stand on any vista and you can marvel at the curvature of the land and the vast fields across the slopes, like a giant ball maze with impossible levels a mountain tall. It was also the first place I’d seen a flock of birds in about six weeks. Sometimes, even standing on top of a mountain, it’s the little things that mean the most.
I stretched my legs out on the sleeper bus, the first form of transportation I’ve ever been able to do so, and settled in next to Genevieve. Garth filled out the remainder of our 3-person top bunk, while Josh, Ana and Megan cozied up down below. Apparently booking six tickets all at once means you get to lay on top of each other, but honestly it was a really nice setup. I’m normally not one for sleeping on road trips, but a 10:30 p.m. departure coupled with an entire week of teaching meant I was out before we even left Hanoi. The 320 km road to Sa Pa is considered dangerous and is the reason many travellers opt for the more expensive night train. On a budget, we all decided the bus would suffice and, if nothing else, make for a good story. However, before I knew what was going on we were parked in a lot outside a Sa Pa church at 4:30 a.m. Apparently I elbowed Gen in the boob, but it was close quarters. It couldn’t be helped.
Lightning silhouetted the mountainside as we dismounted our sleeper steed and headed out into the first fresh air to hit our lungs in weeks. Standing in the middle of a parking lot, we pondered what to do next. Just then a group of women, their gold teeth and loudly patterned shawls the only thing visible in between lightning strikes, surrounded the lot of us.
“You come with us to our village! Only 200,000 Vietnamese Dong!”
“We walk there! Just a few hours! No problem!”
Hesitant to be led into the mountains by strangers at a bus stop, but also without any permanent plans, we listened to their sales pitch. Their village, a place called Hao Ta, was not supposed to be more than 10 or 11 kilometers through a mountain pass. One of the women was half my size and more than twice my age. Another had a baby strapped to her back, passed out without a care in the world. No way the hiking was that tough. Eventually we haggled the price down a bit, as we had no plans to sleep there, and agreed to meet back up at 7 a.m., when it was light and they had hopefully wrangled in a few more unsuspecting Westerners.
With two hours to kill, we wandered a backlit Sa Pa in search of adventure and a hearty breakfast. We found our mountain legs at the bottom of a bowl of Pho Bo (essentially, Vietnamese beef and noodles) and headed back to the bus stop to meet our villager guides.
While a couple of us were still wary of our guides’ intentions, and the rain had begun to fall, it was adventure we were after and we all knew that it would be found in the mountains. At about 7:30 a.m. we took off on the hike.
During my time on the Camino de Santiago in Spain we often covered 25-30 kms a day, with the shortest days a smooth 15 kms. I was entirely confident the group I was with could handle an easy 11 km hike up and over some nice trails. Had that actually been the case, I think we would have all been just fine. That was not the case.
The rain pummeled us for what seemed like hours as we climbed steadily upwards, first on root and rock covered paths, then into more developed areas surrounding villages. Surely we’re getting close, right? My feet had gotten pretty good at counting the distances in Spain and I knew we were coming up on about 9 or 10 kms when we reached the peak of the hike.
“How much further?” I ask a guide.
“Three more hours,” she says with a smile, a glint of the gold tooth a visual reminder that we’d just been had. “We stop for a break soon.”
After a bizarre beer break, in which we sat surrounded by fields of wild marijuana and cheered on runners in a mountain marathon that just so happened to be on the day we decided to visit, we continued on, hearts heavy and socks wet.
Then the craziest thing happened. It stopped raining.
I don’t believe in the supernatural — poltergeists, ghosts and all that — nor am I very religious.
But when the rain stopped and we turned the corner to see what looked like a valley dinosaurs could still be roaming in, it’s hard not to let yourself feel the weight of every living soul that has stood just there, lungs tight and eyes locked on the all-encompassing beauty.
In that moment, with the clouds wrapping around me, I felt overwhelmed and stepped back from the group for a bit. I thought about my parents back home, who are so proud that I’m blazing my own path, but miss me more than they’re letting on. I thought about my brothers, who would have loved to be walking next to me. And I thought of my grandpa, “Pop,” my best friend growing up, who thought the world of me even when I sliced my finger open whittling a stick or when I nearly sett the woods on fire with a flaming arrow. Here I was with the world at my feet and I couldn’t tell him about it.
It’s moments like that I envy those that are religious, that do believe our loved ones have an HD view of our life down here. Maybe Pop was watching, who knows? All I know was in that moment I felt his absence and that of everyone I loved and I cursed the rain for not hiding my tears.
Soon I was cursing the clay-turned-mud that made the entire downhill trek a dangerous slip and slide. The tiny villager women took us by the hands in the tricky spots, having walked this section of the mountain every day for years knew each foothold and safe passage.
We did not.
I fell and cracked open my knee. Gen took a couple tumbles. Ana never let go of her guide’s hand. Josh and Megan inched their way down in the rear.
Garth, suddenly discovering he has superpowers, flew down the mountain, stomping his big French Legion boots wherever he damn well pleased and managed to stay upright all day. Even at a tricky waterfall crossing, one with the sketchiest bridge you’ll ever see, Garth nearly tumbled off a giant boulder to certain injury. Instead, he spider-crawled down the thing and leaped off, landing about 10 feet below on his feet.
During the time that he was auditioning for the next Spiderman re-boot, all I could get out from behind was an extremely helpful, “Garth, no!”
I’d like to think I help saved his life just a little bit.
A good 19 kilometers and six hours after we began our trek, we arrived in Hao Ta, a quaint little village where the homes have dirt floors and at least six children rolling about wherever you look.
The rice fields are filled with chickens, water buffalos, kids, and, of course, rice. Still very high up in the mountain, the village sat inside the clouds while we ate a traditional meal of homegrown rice, beef and veggies. Dessert was a couple shots of rice wine aka “happy water.”
Soon we shoved off for our final destination of the evening — Ta Van village, where we had booked a homestay. With weary feet but full bellies we headed back down the mountain.
The homestay was outside the village a bit, which turned out to be a blessing. The home is run by a lovely couple with the most adorable baby who kept finding different things to get in trouble with. They were all so sweet and treated us like long lost guests instead of paying customers. If I ever make it back to the Sa Pa Valley, I’ll find my way back to that mountain retreat.
After our grueling hike, it provided the best kind of isolation as we sat, the six of us, looking out back towards the mountain we’d just traversed. There are feelings of satisfaction and then there was that moment, where nothing mattered but the cold beer in our hands and each other.
My fascination with motorcycles, and particularly my desire to get one, has been at an all-time high ever since I arrived in Vietnam. They are absolutely everywhere and are truly the best way to get around. They’re small, quick and traffic actually allows for them to get through.
A couple weeks before the Sa Pa trip, I finally went and rented a motorbike of my own. My beauty, a Honda Wave, red like all the rest but loved like no other, is the result of the best decision I’ve made in years. The freedom a motorbike gives you is absolute and the feeling of your shirt whipping on your back while you’re cruising down the road is just the best.
That’s why when Sunday morning rolled around and the clouds parted and the sun shone brightly, I was ecstatic. We would rent bikes and cruise along the mountainside. It would be an absolute dream come true.
Amazingly, the brother of our host at the homestay rents motorbikes and in no time at all we had three bikes waiting for us at the foot of the mountain. After a couple trial runs up and down Ta Van’s market road, it was time to hit the mountain passes.
In my life I’ve never known the exhilaration I felt with that Honda Wave, whining in its most powerful gear, pushing Gen and I up pothole filled roads higher and higher. To the right lay a mammoth of a mountain, to the left was nothing but a sheer cliff down to the valley floor. Every now and then a waterfall would cut across the road, soaking my feet anew. From behind Garth’s laugh would soon be followed by Ana’s outstretched arms as they went zooming by. Josh and Megan, both new to the bike, took to it like old pros. Our little caravan of three motorbikes spent six hours climbing higher and higher, until we were back in the clouds and there was nowhere else to go.
Eventually we would turn around and head back the way we came. We would make our way to the river and dip our feet in the water while our sunburnt shoulders begged for mercy. We would head back to Sa Pa and have an okay meal at a touristy restaurant. We would leave at 11 p.m. on another sleeper bus and wouldn’t get back to Hanoi until 6 a.m. We would smile wearily at each other and go our separate ways, some to teach in an hour, others to take a nap. We would tell all our friends about the beauty of Sa Pa over a few drinks the next few nights.
In that moment, though, at the very top of the mountain it didn’t matter what we had to do that night or the next day or for our next few months of teaching. Together we sat on the edge, feet dangling and hearts soaring, and we all just smiled.
“You guys, this is it. This is what we came for.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it is.”